Monthly Archives: June 2011

My Commute

Home Sweet Home

When I use to live in London and work in the City, I used to commute by bicycle. I didn’t think about it so much then, but those bike rides were a very valuable part of my day. Fitness aside, they were a great way to clear my head – especially at the end of a long day – and rejuvenate me from the workday slog. I know, commuting can be a drain, but for me in London, commuting by bicycle kept me sane, and offered a baseline level of fitness that I could count on every day.

Now that I live where I do and work from home, I try to get out for a walk once a day to achieve the same effect as my former commute. Nothing strenuous; just a stroll around the surrounding fields and meadows to restart the engines and keep me from atrophying in my desk chair.

Orchids Little Guys Clattinger Farm

A side effect to all of this is that I’ve started taking notice of the tiny changes that occur as the seasons pass. At the moment, I’m really enjoying the wildness of the fields, all overgrown, dotted with yellow flowers and dandelions.

Yesterday I took my camera with me and found lots of these tiny changes in the form of little bugs, including the return of the grasshoppers (which I affectionately call “little guys”)…

Little Guy

… and what I think is a narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moth:

Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet... I think

Oddly, like my London commute, I often find it a chore to peel myself out of the office chair and get my body back into motion. But just like London, once I do it, I’m always glad I did.

Orchid I think?

Homemade Ricotta

Homemade Ricotta

I’ve been going into London a lot lately. Mostly for work. Occasionally for play. This week’s trip was especially exhausting – two nights in the big smoke, Wednesday and Thursday, the latter of which involved a wowzer of a dinner at Bacchus Pub and Kitchen in Hoxton. The meal necessitated not only three courses, but two large glasses of delicious Tyrrell’s Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (Australia, 2008) and a glass of Elysium Black Muscat (USA, 2009) to go with dessert.

The meal left me aglow with the bliss of a good night out, but also a wee bit tired on Friday. And after cycling across London and travelling back to the farm, I was feeling a touch fatigued and entirely uncreative.

So I did what I do when I don’t have the energy to write or work: I cooked.

Ever since the broad beans arrived in this week’s organic box, I’ve been thinking about the broad bean and goats curd salad I had at Rachel Demuth’s French Cookery Holiday last year. But to recreate it would require goats curd. And to create goats curd in a way that would make me feel good about eating it would require fresh goat’s milk. This was becoming too difficult a project for a hungover Friday afternoon.

Since I couldn’t find any goats, I settle for cows, and took a drive to the Organic Farm Shop in Cirencester, one of my favourite places around, for some of their fresh non homgenised whole milk.

Ricotta cheese is actually very easy to make – all you need is milk, vinegar or lemon juice, and a bit of salt. There are a few techniques out there that are a touch more complex – Smitten Kitchen just posted a recipe that includes heavy cream for a richer cheese; 101 Cookbooks uses buttermilk instead of vinegar; David Lebowitz includes whole-milk yogurt and heavy cream.

However, when the milk is this fresh, I prefer a simple recipe that’s all about the milk, and so I followed Carl Legge‘s simple technique of heating the milk, adding vinegar, letting it curdle, and then straining in muslin.

The result is a crumbly, soft cheese that’s so good I can’t bring myself to stuff it in a lasagna or saturate with tomato sauce. Instead, I like my ricotta to stand on its own. I especially like it in salads, such as my recreation of the infamous goats curd salad, with broad beans, sugar snaps and tarragon vinaigrette.

Fresh ricotta and broad bean salad

I have plans to use the remaining ricotta on a bit of toast, perhaps with some basil and tomato. But again, nothing too crazy – I want the cheese to stand out.

Homemade Ricotta

I hear you can do this with semi-skimmed milk, too, but the yield will be less. Adapted from Carl Legge’s homemade ricotta recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 L whole milk
  • 44 mL white wine vinegar or lemon juice
  • salt

Method

Put the milk into a large heavy bottomed pan.

Heat the milk on medium heat until its almost boiling, stirring regularly while its heating up.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the vinegar or lemon juice and salt and stir. The milk will curdle and “split”. Leave to cool.

Line a strainer with cheesecloth or muslin and set it over a deep bowl. Pour the curdled milk into the strainer and let it drain for an hour or so. What remains in the muslin is your ricotta!

Save the leftover liquid (whey) – you can add it to smoothies (it’s really good with strawberry and banana smoothies) or use it to replace water in bread recipes.

 

Please Support Webstaurants and EatDrinkSocial

Webstaurants EatDrinkSocial

It doesn’t take much reading of SmarterFitter to realise that there’s one overarching obsession that permeates everything I do: food.

For a while now I’ve been trying to figure out a way to turn my love of food into a full-time job. But here’s the hitch: my career so far has largely been technical, starting with a BSc and MSc in math, and then a series of computery / statsy jobs in banking, finance, and e-learning. Even now, as a freelance writer, most of my income stems from writing jobs that are about techy subjects, such as blog posts about social media, or research studies for big brands on online marketing, or, as I worked on this week, a white paper on Facebook and the pharmaceutical industry (soon to be published!).

The thing is, I studied applied math for a reason: I’m a geek. I love computers. I love data. I love science!

But the thing I’ve realised in the past few years is that, as much as I love math and science, I love food just a little bit more.

The food-as-full-time-job challenge

So how do I make a full-time living doing food stuff without abandoning my tech side?

Webstaurants is an experiment that attempts to answer that question.

Like the business card says, Webstaurants “helps restaurants use the internet to make more money, fill more tables and generate business.” My goal is to help restaurants get online, establish a presence (through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc), maintain that presence (important) and use that presence to fill tables and increase sales (crucial).

At present, Webstaurants is a business of one: me. Anyone who’s ever started a business on their own knows it’s tough work, but I’ve passed one major hurdle: getting my first client.

For the past few months I’ve been very grateful to have as a client one of my chef idols, Rachel Demuth of Demuths Restaurant and Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath. I’ve been helping Rachel maintain her Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts, as well as promote various events, such as her upcoming supperclub in July, which filled up in less than a week, primarily through online advertising.

It really is about who you know

Where there is one client, there must be more. And so I’ve been working hard, trying to network with foodies, meet other restaurants, and meet other business owners for advice and inspiration.

One such business owner (and all around friendly bloke) is Shaun of Black Dog New Media. He also runs a small business doing webby stuff and suggested we set up a social media event for chefs, restaurateurs, foodies and anyone in the hospitality industry. And so, EatDrinkSocial was born.

EatDrinkSocialA5Flyer 3

Our goal with EatDrinkSocial is to facilitate and share best practice, experience and knowledge in a friendly atmosphere, and of course, enjoy some tasty snacks and hopefully meet some folks who might want to buy our services.

Rachel has been kind enough to offer her cookery school as a venue for our first event, happening 27th June. After a slow start, we’ve had a sudden spurt of interest, with five confirmed attendees yesterday alone. Of course, we need more to make it a success, but I’m encouraged by the interest so far.

Weakness is for the weak

I had a great boss at one of my early jobs writing about statistics for an e-learning company. He said there are some people who spend all of their lives battling their weaknesses; sometimes its better to instead focus on your strengths. I realise now that I spent a long time battling my weaknesses in math because I simply really wished I had it in me to be an academic mathematician (the reasons why are a whole other essay in itself). It took me a while to recognise that I was a whole lot better at actually writing about math than doing the tough research. Writing I can do, I’ve always loved writing – creating content as they’re calling it in these interwebby days. And let’s face it, I’ve got way too many other things running around my head (like “what’s for lunch?”) to have the focus required for rigorous mathematical research.

Having accepted that I won’t win Field’s Medal, and that I’d be better off making things and being creative, I feel much better about life and my career. Of course, in pursuing these strengths, I’m having to overcome a whole bunch of other weaknesses, such as sales and marketing. But if I can pull myself together enough to get one client, I should be able to get another, and another, and eventually I’ll have enough business to hire people to do the jobs that I would rather not do (for a great, quick and inspiring read on delegation, check out Delegate or die: the self-employment trap).

If you’ve managed to read this far, then your interest and readership is more support than I can ever ask for. But if you feel like doing a little more, here are a few ways you can help support Webstaurants and EatDrinkSocial:

Thanks, readers. You are all superstars!

The Early Bird Catches the Peahen

Early Bird

I awoke this morning to find this big beauty staring at me from right outside the front door. It’s a peahen, a female peacock (many thanks to @WiltshireWalker on Twitter for helping me identify it). And as much as I was amused by the idea, I will not follow Vivia‘s suggestion: “roast peahen is quite a delicacy and there is no closed season :).”

I will also not follow the peahen’s persistent pecking at the door to “let me in!” As much as I like the idea of a posh peahen pet, the poop would be a disaster.

Early Bird

Home Office Before and After

I spent my Sunday rearranging the office, hoping a change-up might help my creative juices flow more readily. And besides, the office was looong overdue for a tidy. Next step is to hang some stuff on the wall and work out better lighting. I’d also like a coffee table. But that’s a job for another weekend. For the next while I must the office for what it is intended: working in. But hey that’s life, and I can’t complain too much when I’ve got a nice, refreshed space to work in.

Before:

Until recently I was sharing the office; my desk is shown on the right, facing the wall – not ideal. You may also notice that the couch was blocking access to the closet (double doors on the right).

Pimp my Office

After:

Now, with the office to myself, I could take over the window, and the room.  The benefit to this new arrangement is that I’m sitting right next to the window and looking into the room and the rest of the house. Great Feng Shui that is! The couch is also facing the windows which is nice. Not sure about the office chair near the guitar, but that’s where it seems to fit. Today was a dark, rainy day so the pictures are a bit drab, but I hope it gets the idea across:

I've rearranged the office

I've rearranged the office

In case you’re wondering, I use autopan pro for the photo stitches. It’s awesome.

Truffle Oil and Pasta

Pasta with egg, asparagus and truffle oil

About a week ago, on a shopping expedition to Waitrose for an epic Orchard Cottage BBQ, Tim asked if I felt like having an indulgent lunch? Um, OK. And so, the tiny bottle of “Olive Oil Infused With White Truffles” (£4.69 per 100mL) fell into our basket, and life has never been the same.

That afternoon Tim made a delicious, yet very simple dish of tagliatelle tossed with fresh spinach, porcini mushrooms, butter, white truffle oil, parmesan cheese, and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Served with a glass of white wine, it was truly one of the most special lunches I’ve ever had. (And also one of the most nap-inducing.)

The only unfortunate thing about the truffle oil is that it had a pesky lid that didn’t seal well. And so, Tim had no choice but to leave the oil behind. So it sits on my countertop and every time I see it, I feel transported back tot hat happey lunch, and my mind starts wondering what other foods would go well with it. Eggs? Asparagus? Risotto? More pasta?

Truffle Oil Truffle Oil Pasta Spier Sauvignon Blanc

Somehow, amid all this musing and mushrooming, a craving surged for a dish that I can only equate to a hybrid between Tim’s dish and a vegetarian carbonara. It all came together on Saturday in a simple, quick pasta dish that may become my new favourite go-to lunch (while the truffle oil lasts). It’s a simple combination of pasta, egg, garlic, truffle oil, parmesan and greens. Asparagus worked really well in this – a generally delicious pairing for eggs and mushrooms. But this would also be amazing with spinach or chard. You could also up the mushroom factor with some porcini mushrooms, but I like the simplicity of this as it stands. The flavour of the egg and asparagus really come through, and are subtly lifted by the delicate flavour of the truffle oil.

Before I proceed to the recipe, a quick point on health: pasta often gets a bad wrap but it’s really not a terrible food, no worse – and often better – than bread. Its poor reputation stems from our compulsion to eat massive quantities of pasta in one sitting (we’ve all been there, admit it). However, this dish goes easy on the pasta, and gets pumped up with lots of delicious green veg and of course, gorgeously creamy eggs (from happy hens!). The primary sources of fat are olive oil, egg, and parmesan – all good things. The result is a well-balanced meal that, in my opinion, is practically a health food.

Tagliatelle with Asparagus & White Truffle Oil

Inspired by Tim’s adaptation of the recipe printed on the bottle of Urbani Tartufi Olive Oil Infused with White Truffles. It’s a well-rounded, one pot meal that cooks in just a bit more time than it takes to make pasta (so really really fast if you’re using fresh pasta). You can basically add any vegetable you want to this – spinach, chard, peas, etc. I add chilli flakes, as well, but I’m a chilli fiend. The recipe shown serves one Monica-sized (i.e. small) person so fellas, you’ll probably want to double all the ingredients to make this a man-sized meal. Also, I cook the garlic in white wine and butter; you could just as easily do this in olive oil, or omit the white wine if you don’t have it around.

Prep Time: 0 minutes
Cook time: 15-20 minutes (depending on pasta cooking time)

Ingredients

  • 100g fresh tagliatelle (or other pasta; use more to suite your appetite)
  • 1 egg
  • a splash of milk
  • 6 asparagus spears, ends trimed and cut in half
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • a bit of butter
  • parmesan to taste
  • a splash of white wine
  • white truffle oil
  • red chili flakes (optional)
  • salt and fresh ground pepper

Method

Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package instructions.

Meanwhile, in a small pan melt some butter and add the garlic and white wine. Cook until the garlic is soft and the wine is evaporated. Remove from heat.

Whisk the egg and milk together in a bowl and set aside.

As the pasta finishes cooking, add the asparagus do the boiling water, then drain the lot.

Return the pasta to its pan and put on a medium heat. Add the egg, chilli flakes, a pinch of salt and a good drizzle of truffle oil. Mix everything in the pan until the egg has cooked.

Serve hot garnished with parmesan cheese and fresh ground pepper.

Yields: 1 serving

Per serving: 526 Calories | 18 grams Fat | 63 grams Carbohydrates | 30 grams Protein | 3 grams Fiber

Elderflower Cordial

Elderflower Cordial

The elderflowers are back, and after last year’s success with elderflower champagne, I’m determined to make the most of this season’s bounty. The champagne is already on the go, but for more immediate satisfaction, I decided to try my hand at elderflower cordial.

Elderflower harvest

I started with Sophie Grigson’s recipe on uktv.co.uk, a simple process of soaking elderflower in a mix of water, sugar, lemon, and citric acid, and then straining into sterilised bottles.

The citric acid was a mystery ingredient for me; I had to order mine online (Amazon to the rescue). I’ve heard you can buy it at chemists / pharmacists, but when I tried this, I was told that pharmacies no longer carry citric acid because it can be used to make naughty things!

I followed one of the suggestions posted on Sophie’s recipe to cut down the sugar and lemon so that the elderflower really stands out. The result was a full-flavoured cordial, quite tart, but with a really good hit of elderflower.

Elderflower Cordial in Progress

A few people asked where my cordial gets its colour from: I attribute its golden tint to the unrefined golden caster sugar I used. You could also use white granulated sugar, but I really like the bright bold colour of mine if I do say so myself!

I served the cordial with fizzy water at a bbq last night – a tasty treat for the kids and designated drivers, all of whom asked for seconds. Success!

Elderflower Cordial

Adapted from Sophie Grigson’s recipe on uktv.co.uk. Service diluted in still or sparkling water, preferably with ice.

Ingredients

  • 20 heads of elderflower
  • 550g caster sugar
  • 1.2 litres water
  • 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 75 g citric acid

Method

  1. Shake the elderflowers to expel any lingering insects, and then place in a large bowl.
  2. Put the sugar into a pan with the water and bring up to the boil, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved.
  3. While the sugar syrup is heating, pare the zest of the lemons off in wide strips and toss into the bowl with the elderflowers. Slice the lemons, discard the ends, and add the slices to the bowl. Pour over the boiling syrup, and then stir in the citric acid. Cover with a cloth and then leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
  4. The next day, have a taste of the cordial to check if it’s sweet enough. If you find it too tart, add a bit more sugar and give it a stir, plus a few hours to really dissolve. Then taste again, repeating the process until it’s at the desired sweetness (but keep in mind, you can always add sugar to the drinks you make later, but you can’t take sugar away!).
  5. Line a sieve with muslin and rinse it in boiling water. Strain the cordial through the sieve and pour into thoroughly cleaned glass or plastic bottles. Screw on the lids and pop into the cupboard ready to use.
Makes: 1.5 litres

Sometimes this garden baffles me

Veg bed looking paltry

This is only my second year with a proper garden, and I really feel like an amateur when I step outside and look at my paltry raised bed, where the only crop doing exceptionally well is the rocket that I never planted in the first place (stray seeds from last year, I suppose?).

The French beans, which had such a good start inside, now look frail and withered. Undernourished? Battered by the wind? I just don’t know.

The french beans are looking worse for wear

The perpetual spinach, which started well, is now yellowing and turning brown at the edges. Is this just a natural part of its life? Are they too crowded?

Why is the spinach turning yellow?

And for some reason, I have never been able to successfully grow sage. Maybe this plant is the culprit, depressing everything around it, except for the ever-hardy wild rocket that thrives behind it.

Why can't I grow sage?

Elsewhere, my tomatoes are looking a little yellow and forlorn (interestingly, the tomato I’m growing indoors is happy as can be). The ever wise Naomi suggests they’re undernourished. Time to get some plant food I think.

Tomato plant turning yellow - why?

The state of the radishes is no mystery; they’re clearly getting nommed on by the most notorious of garden pests.

Something's eating my radish The culprit

But not everything has shrivelled to bits. This is the second year with my container strawberry and raspberry plants, both of which have started to fruit.

Strawberries! Raspberry!

My salad leaves have been a huge success, particularly the mizuna.

Mizuna! More salad coming in

And of course, the rocket, which also made it to my parsley and dill tray. The miracles of nature!

More mystery rocket

It also looks like there will be lots of heritage potatoes this year. My roasting pan is ready and waiting.

Happy potatoes

Even these little spring onions, which I thought were goners, have sprung to life, perhaps just to prove their superiority to the neighbouring sage.

Hanging on for life

So, highs and lows, but it’s all highs really – this garden is a constant education. I still have a bunch of seedlings that need to be planted out – cucumber, melons, more tomato, onions. I’m sorta scared to move them but I know they’re getting a little cramped in their containers. And surely we’re past all worry of frost? (I don’t trust the weather in this country!) So, time to eat some rocket and make room in the raised bed. And time to buy some plant food.